Credit Card Concierges Offer Last-Minute Holiday Shopping Help

If you're panicking about how you're going to finish your holiday shopping this year, help may be as close as your credit card.

A growing number of cards are touting free, round-the-clock concierge services that can do more than just get you tickets and restaurant reservations; they offer some serious holiday shopping support.

Among the ways your credit card concierge can help save you time this holiday season:

Locate hard-to-find gifts. If you're trying to find something that's sold only overseas (like the wine you drank together in Paris) or an item that's sold out online or in local stores, a concierge can often find it and have it shipped to you. A Visa Signature card concierge, for example, called more than a dozen stores nationwide to track down a pair of size 7 "catwoman" Chuck Taylor sneakers (which were sold out in most stores) for a cardholder.

Brainstorm gift ideas. Your concierge will ask you a series of questions about your hard-to-buy-for recipients, from what they do for a living to what their hobbies are, and then send you a list of possible gift ideas. So if you know someone who loves to cook, the concierge might send you the hottest new cooking gadgets or cookbooks.

Compare prices. Whether you want to get your grandson a Nintendo DS or your husband a black leather jacket, a concierge can research where to get the item for the lowest price. Or if you don't know exactly what you want, he or she can send you a list of the options, their prices and how they compare.

Shop for you. American Express recently launched a full-service gift buying concierge for its Platinum cardholders. You send a list  of recipients, their shipping addresses and what you'd like to get for each, and the concierge will do all the legwork, from researching the options, to shipping it with a gift note to checking to make sure it arrives in time. Other card concierges say they can do some buying for you as long as it's not more than a few items and everything can be bought online.

"When you think of a concierge, you tend to think, 'They can book a taxi for me or help me get a restaurant reservation.'" said John Carr, head of the premium consumer credit products group at Visa. "But we've seen a significant increase in the number of calls that are shopping related."

Typically, about one in every five calls to Visa's Signature card concierge service is someone who needs shopping help, Carr said. But that number was up 40% in November, as folks turned to their concierges to help them with holiday shopping. And Carr expects an even bigger boost this month.

All Visa Signature, MasterCard World Elite and American Express Platinum cards offer a concierge and many other cards do, too, especially those that target customers with annual household incomes of more than $100,000. If you're not sure if your card offers the perk, call the number on the back of your card and ask.

American Express, the first to offer a concierge in 1984, has a reputation for the best service, though you'll have to pay an annual fee of at least $450 a year to get it.

Melanie Backs, manager of public affairs for American Express, said the concierges who work for the company's new "Platinum Concierge Gift Buying Service" are specially trained in gift buying and to help cardholders come up with gift ideas. The gifts must be purchased with an American Express card, Backs said, but otherwise, the sky's the limit.

"Cardmembers were already turning to our concierge to help source gifts, and there was so much interest that we decided to establish a separate service focused on gifts," Backs said. "It's a way we can give our members a little time back during the holiday season."